Witcover: The Comey report gives Republicans reason to join Trump's attack on "Crooked Hillary."
The long-awaited FBI report on Hillary Clinton's handling of emails as secretary of state didn't charge her with criminal misconduct. But FBI Director James Comey's assertion that she and aides were "extremely careless" in handling classified information is enough to keep the political pot boiling over her qualifications to be president.
That much became immediately evident in the speed with which her Republican and conservative critics seized on the full report last week to continue their assault on her trustworthiness — what for some time has been the centerpiece of their campaign against her.
From presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan to radio talk kingpin Rush Limbaugh, Republicans took to the Internet and the airwaves with allegations of political injustice.
Mr. Comey's press conference coincided with Ms. Clinton's first campaign foray with President Obama, her old boss, in North Carolina, providing a somewhat awkward kickoff of her bid to extend many of Mr. Obama's foreign and domestic policies in her own presidency.
The Clinton campaign put the best face on the reports, issuing a statement declaring: "We are pleased that the career officials handling this case have determined that no further action by (the Justice) Department is appropriate. As the secretary has said, it was a mistake to use her personal email and she would not do it again." Her spokesman, Brian Fallon, added hopefully: "We are glad that the matter is now resolved."
But Mr. Comey's own observation had a distinct fig-leaf quality to it: "Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information."
In justifying his very detailed report, Mr. Comey said, "given the importance of the matter, I think unusual transparency is in order." That was the only reference to the current presidential campaign in which Hillary Clinton's trustworthiness has become such a central element in the political debate and combat.
Donald Trump's immediate response via Twitter was: "FBI director says Crooked Hillary compromised our national security. No charges. Wow! #Rigged system." His answer indicated no change in his brusque style that has been widely criticized but appeals to his followers.
Speaker Ryan said: "While I respect the law enforcement professionals at the FBI, this announcement defies explanation. No one should be above the law. ... Declining to prosecute Secretary Clinton for recklessly mishandling and transmitting national security information will set a terrible precedent."
Mr. Ryan went on: "While we need more information about how the Bureau came to this recommendation, the American people will reject this troubling pattern of dishonesty and poor judgment."
Mr. Limbaugh swiftly seized on the Comey report to burn up the airwaves echoing Mr. Trump's allegations of a "rigged system."
Taken together, all these reactions to the FBI report make clear that, far from offering a credible exoneration of Ms. Clinton's use of what Bernie Sanders memorably in an early debate called her "damn emails," the issue is likely to have weeks or months more life as a contentious issue.
It all plays into the hands of Donald Trump and his latest assault on her as the beneficiary of a corrupt political system. It feeds the narrative that Mr. Trump had begun the build out of that unfathomable meeting between Attorney General Loretta Lynch, who theoretically has the last word on the Justice decision, and former President Bill Clinton.
As Mr. Trump struggles to muster support from the GOP establishment, the Comey report provides a new argument for ambivalent Republicans to join his attack on "Crooked Hillary" and her loose-cannon husband.
Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.